The Generalist as Pack Mule

When I left my PhD school in 1996, one of my professors said, “Just don’t go to a two-year college. You’ll be stuck there forever if you do, and they are the pack mules of academia.” It’s 2010 now, and I’m in my 14th year at a two-year college. I can’t argue with the pack mule charge.

This semester I have more than 200 students, about 60 in literature and the remaining in composition courses. I’m writing this on Sunday morning. My to-do list for today, a Sunday, looks like this:

Grade research proposals
Work on TYCA National document
Work on report for TYCA-SE
Contact panelists for March symposium
Prepare e-portfolio workshop for MSGCCC
Work on Twitter workshop for CFTTC
Catch up on awarding discussion board points
Catch up on email
Catch up on responding to discussion boards
Grade late papers
Work on grant proposal
Prepare talk for library

Yes, these are all items that need to be done today, not within the next few days. Tomorrow I’ll have a whole new list and a whole new set of assignments rolling in. Yesterday, I graded for most of the day. Had I not, my list would be unachievable. As it is, I can probably manage, depending on how many emails I receive and assuming I do not take a nap or leave my house.

I look at this list as I think about my professor’s comments all those years ago and as I think through my own part in revising TYCA’s statement on Research and Scholarship in the Two-Year College. I was first directed to this document maybe five or six years ago by John Lovas, may he rest in peace. He said then that the purpose of the document was to help the discipline recognize the hard work and scholarship already taking place in two-year colleges as much as or more than encouraging two-year college faculty to engage in more research and scholarship.

Two-year college instructors take on heavy teaching loads and see no real financial incentives to remain active scholars within their disciplines. Yet they are scholars, many or most of them, because they care.

I’m happy to be working on this document even though it will take up a good portion of a day that would be busy regardless. I believe in the spirit of it. I believe two-year college faculty do make a significant contribution to my own discipline and should be recognized as such.

I also believe that the main reason they aren’t better recognized is that they are by necessity generalists as opposed to specialists. In the past 14 years, I’ve taught composition, developmental English, reading, creative writing, world literature, British literature, and introduction to humanities. The only class we offer that I haven’t taught is American literature, which ironically enough, is probably the class I had the most background in when I started the job. I might be asked to teach anything. I have been asked to teach anything. Sometimes I’ve had as little as a day’s warning that I would be teaching an entirely new preparation. Life and enrollments are unpredictable in a two-year college, and if you aren’t able to quickly adapt to new sets of expectations, you aren’t likely to last long there.

Thus I have researched a wide variety of topics related to writing, literature, and teaching over the past 14 years. I know enough to comfortably get by on just about anything I might be asked to do. I know a lot more than that about some things. Does that make me an expert at none? I don’t know. I know a great deal about poetry, teaching with technology, and Southern literature. Am I an expert in those areas? I could teach any of them at any level, but I wouldn’t pit myself in a contest against someone who has been teaching a particular specialty area at the graduate level for any length of time. I haven’t put that much time into one particular specialty. I’ve been too busy doing everything.

What it comes down to for me I think is that the generalist is a viable scholarly position, but it doesn’t get much respect. I suppose it doesn’t in any field. I wouldn’t go to a general practitioner if I needed heart surgery, but where would the world be without the general practitioners working on the front lines to protect the world from flu and streptococcus?

Insert your own transition here to maneuver back from the front line to the pack mule analogy. You get the picture. Two-year college faculty work hard, thankless jobs. They do a lot more research and produce a lot more knowledge for the discipline than we often recognize. They certainly teach a lot more students than anyone else.

Cheers to TYCA for working so hard to see that their members do get some recognition. And thanks Sandie, Howard, Frank, et al for handing me this extra item on today’s to-dos. I’m happy to help where I can.